Mumbai slum fire victims lost everything they owned

© Niklas Bergstrand

One evening in early March, 1,500 families in the Garib Nagar slum in Mumbai saw everything they own go up in flames when a devastating fire ripped through their neighbourhood. MSF assisted the affected population the following week by distributing 4,800 emergency kits to help fulfill the most immediate needs.

Noorjhan, 37, had a grim look on her face as she looked at the heap of sooty, wooden planks, half turned to charcoal. This is all that is left of the house where she lived until a week ago, when a fire reduced her house and belongings to a pile of rubble.

“It was a normal evening, like any evening,” she said. “My children were playing around in our house. Suddenly I heard somebody yelling from outside that a fire was breaking out. I understood that we were in danger, so I rushed to get my children out of the house.

“I didn’t manage to rescue any belongings. Our community leaders called the fire brigade, but in the end the firemen couldn’t stop the flames from destroying the houses. Now everything is burnt, and I have lost everything I own. I feel afraid.”

The cause of the fire is still unconfirmed, although suspicions have been raised in the media that the incident was an act of sabotage. The scramble for land in Mumbai is fierce, where over 50 percent of its population live in slum areas which occupy just seven percent of the city space.

“We cannot speculate about the cause of the fire,” said Thierry Mavungu Manwa, who is coordinating MSF's intervention. “Our concern is that people here have many immediate needs that are not fulfilled. The people here are hungry, they have lost everything they own and are sleeping under plastic canvases without any protection. The 1500 families all have to share the two latrines that are here. There is a serious lack of access to adequate water and sanitation.”

A long, dwindling queue of people waited for their turn to receive assistance from 20 MSF staff, who handed out emergency kits containing plastic sheeting, blankets, hygiene products and kitchen utensils.  There was some screaming, shouting and shuffling about as the queue starts moving forward and the frenetic sound of horns from the busy traffic nearby added to the intense atmosphere, but each person eventually received their kit, as the queue settled.

By midday all kits were distributed, and some people had already started to make use of the contents.

Salma, 45, was particularly happy with the kitchen utensils that she received. “This is good quality equipment” she said with a smile. “I will also use the plastic sheeting to improve the shelter, so I can get more privacy”.

But for somebody who has lost all possessions, the relief is far from being a cure-all.

"We hope that our relief efforts will restore some of the dignity of these people,” said Mavungu Manwa. “But the plastic shelters are only a temporary solution, and access to adequate water and sanitation is very limited. Also, stagnant water from leaking pipes create breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying diseases such as malaria. I really hope that the affected population will soon receive the full support they need, so that they can go back to living their lives as normal.”